Not getting bogged down in logistics, Jeff Blitz’s Spellbound documents the 1999 nerd Olympics. Nine million spelling-bee contestants reduced to 249 finalists, reduced to one winner. But instead of shot-putting to victory, this American institution is a battle of wits, with the victor being crowned not only best-speller but as the paragonic American school kid.
Blitz’ focuses his particularly objective documentary on a portrait of eight aspiring contestants and their families. The first half of the film introduces them singly in their hometowns: five girls and three boys from all over the country, from different races and economic classes—Angela, Nupur, Ted, Emily, Ashley, Neil, April, and bizarro Harry. The second half is the bee itself, where Blitz shows them knocked off, one by one fading into obscurity. Although watching children try to spell convoluted, preposterous words for ninety minutes may not sound appealing on first thought, Spritz’ builds overwhelming anxiety in those stumbling moments, where we are left hanging on every letter, leading to an intense final showdown that’ll leave you peeking through your fingers.
Perhaps a product of rigorous research or plain old luck, Blitz and co-producer Sean Welch managed to pick eight equally fascinating and disparate contenders to follow. From the prissy, Connecticut’s au pair raised Emily to D.C’s young African-American loner Ashley, the origins of our bright young things are explored in great, yet not exploitative detail by Blitz, who clearly wants to represent the mercurial diversity of the US.
For all it’s heart, there’s a great deal of comedy brought forward in this documentary too. Strikingly similar in structure to Christopher Guest’s fantastic pooch mockumentary Best in Show, the pushy parents behind the children are tragic and humorous in equal merit, with Blitz’ as the innocent bystander in all the phonetic frenzy.
Beaten to the 2002 Academy Award by Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, like all his studious subjects, it’s unjust to consider Jeffrey Blitz as a loser. Getting the balance between American patriotism and jingoism just right, Spellbound is a heartwarming, unpretentious documentary which is able to educate, entertain and enlighten.